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Neandertals Adorned with Feathers, Thinking Symbolically September 22, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Here is a wonderful example of why I, as a philosopher, have a passion for every bit of new info and speculation coming out about human evolution. To me there is no deeper philosophical question than the one about human identity: Who are we? Who were we? And how do we differ from those who are our close relatives today (the apes), and who were our even closer living relatives in the past (now three separate relatively recent groups of hominins coexisting with early Homo sapiens: the Neandertals, the Denisovans, and the elusive “Hobbits”, Homo floresiensis)? The categories we used to indicate our human extraordinary nature have been steadily challenged in the last decades. We used to be the only tool users. Then, because we found that apes (and birds) use tools, too, we became the only tool makers. But apes and birds make tools, too. So we became the only rational species. Ah, but now it turns out that many other species are quite capable of basic reasoning. Then we were the only species that has self-recognition. But so do apes, dolphins, elephants, ravens, magpies, pigs, and maybe even (if we are to believe the very latest findings) all big-brained, social species. But aren’t we at least the only ones who deliberately create art, and use body decorations? Because a brain that can conceive of art and decorations is capable of thinking symbolically. As late as ten years ago the great anthropologist Ian Tattersall claimed that humans were the only ones with the capacity for symbolic thinking. The Neandertals, with their big brains, still didn’t count as a self-aware species because they didn’t have symbolic thinking. Well, according to Scientific American blogger Kate Wong, they did:

Experts agree that Neandertals hunted large game, controlled fire, wore animal furs and made stone tools. But whether they also engaged in activities deemed to be more advanced has been a matter of heated debate. Some researchers have argued that Neandertals lacked the know-how to effectively exploit small prey, such as birds, and that they did not routinely express themselves through language and other symbolic behaviors. Such shortcomings put the Neandertals at a distinct disadvantage when anatomically modern humans availed of these skills invaded Europe—which was a Neandertal stronghold for hundreds of thousands of years—and presumably began competing with them, so the story goes.

Over the past couple decades hints that Neandertals were savvier than previously thought have surfaced, however. Pigment stains on shells from Spain suggest they painted, pierced animal teeth from France are by all appearances Neandertal pendants. The list goes on. Yet in all of these cases skeptics have cautioned that the evidence is scant and does not establish that such sophistication was an integral part of the Neandertal gestalt.

But now some new results have come in: Neandertals, across the entire western Eurasia, wore feathers they harvested from birds of prey—in particular black feathers.

Exactly what the Neandertals were doing with the feathers is unknown, but because they specifically sought out birds with dark plumage, the researchers suspect that our kissing cousins were festooning themselves with the resplendent flight feathers. Not only are feathers beautiful, they are also lightweight, which makes them ideal for decoration, Finlayson points out. “We don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many modern human cultures across the world have used them.”

Speakers at a conference on human evolution held in Gibraltar last week extolled the study, and agreed with the team’s interpretation of the remains as evidence that Neandertals adorned themselves with the feathers as opposed to using them for some strictly utilitarian purpose. If the cutmarked bones from Gibraltar had been found in association with early modern humans, researchers would assume that the feathers were symbolic, says paleoanthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin notes. The same standards should apply to Neandertals. “We’ve got to now say that Neandertals were using birds. Period. They were using them a lot. They were wearing around their feathers,” he comments. “They clearly cared. A purely utilitarian kind of person does not put on a feathered headdress.”

So. The Neandertals had symbolic thinking after all. (And those researchers who pointed out, over ten years ago, that the jewelry found in Neandertal archeological sites would indicate as much, as well as the little fact that they buried their dead, they can now feel vindicated.) And how far back in time did the symbolic, self-aware thinking originate?

 

“[This] is something many of us thought was unique to Homo sapiens,” [John] Shea adds. “But [it] turns out to be either convergently evolved with Neandertals or more likely something phylogenetically ancient we simply haven’t picked up in the more ancient archaeological record. It’s probably something [our common ancestor] Homo heidelbergensis did, we just haven’t found archaeological evidence for it yet.”

Homo heidelbergensis. At least 500,000 years ago. So we are not unique in our symbolic thinking. Now that doesn’t mean humans are not exceptional. Of course we are. We have managed to extend our influence and interest into space (literally), and time, by our research and imagination, reaching into the dim past as well as affecting and imagining possible futures. We can leave our legacy through our languages, our imagery (provided it doesn’t all go digital and disappears), our artifacts, our music, our buildings (and also the strip mines, the polluted lakes, the mass graves of discarded civilians, and all the other less wonderful stuff that is part of human history). Our reach, for better and for worse, is far greater than the other social animals on this planet. But the point is, it now seems to be fundamentally a matter of degree, not of a radically different kind.